Mary Poppins Returns was bound to suffer comparisons to its predecessor, Mary Poppins and many people here skeptical as if it the magic could be recreated once more. Fortunately, Rob Marshall handled the film as a labor of love and made sure to have the best team be part of this new adventure. We had the opportunity to speak with VFX supervisor, Matt Johnson about the challenges of brining new life to a beloved classic.
Seeing as how the first Mary Poppins film was done in the 60’s before the wonders of computer animation and visual effects where on hand, I was curious as to what where some of the challenges the visual effects team had to overcome in order to remain true to the spirit of Mary Poppins but giving it a fresh, new look for those who were new to this character and her story.
Matt Johnson admits he began making Mary Poppins Returns with some trepidation “because the film film is such a huge part of so many peoples childhoods, myself included. It is so iconic that we really needed to be respectful of the first film but to make something that worked with a contemporary audience as well. I think it was really important to me as a huge fan of the fist film, to align with the original film with things like the animation style, we didn’t want to do that like a modern cartoon weren’t going to do a Frozen or Incredibles, as great as they are, we wanted to be true to the silver age,1960’s hands-on, Disney style so it was fun trying to bring that look using CG technology to create stages.”
Matt explains how for some of the musical stages, Rob was able to move the camera to do things that were impossible to do back in the 60’s, even with all the great technology that existed at the time. “They had to keep things much simpler so we tried to bring it up to date in terms of camera movements to look like it was a hand drawn wall from 1964, so that was fun.” As far as getting the stylistic look of London, the VFX team tried to make it look a little bit more photographic and realistic while being respectful to the P. L. Travers painting style of the original movie. “We wanted to make sure we were in the same visual language as the original film.”
Part of what makes the world of Mary Poppins so unique is that we see real life characters jump into fantastical worlds that encompass their own stories and characters. We see the Banks children be reintroduced to being children once again, through these magical worlds that live within their every day lives. There are many scenes to chose from in the film ranging from the carriage ride inside their mothers China bowl, to walking upside down in Topsy’s home and taking an adventurous underwater trip in their bathtub. Matt explains just how this fantastical journey was possible.
“One of the scenes that was fun, yet challenging to film was the bathtub sequence when they’re swimming down underwater because Ron (Marshall) likes to shoot everything as live as possible. It’s very important for him to have the actors singing the song and the dancers doing the dances where it takes many months for visual effects movies and superheroes to become CG characters flying around on the screen, which was not what we wanted to do in this film. So, for the underwater sequence we had to make a very elaborate water rig to suspend Emily (Blunt) and the three kids so they could appear as though they were floating. One of the fun challenges of this film was, normally in the underwater filming we try to make people feel a little more weightless and floaty, and typically you do that by filming speeding up the camera so when you play it back at normal speed everything feels slow motion.”
The challenge came from the fact that while everyone was floating underwater, Mary Poppins was singing, this means that even though everything was filmed sped up, Emily Blunt’s lips had to match the normal speed of the song when the recorded scene was played back. “The way we did that was because of Emily’s amazing performance on set. She had to sing the song much faster than it actually plays in the movie so it’s really a challenge. We had the music playing fast on set, she had to move her mouth incredibly fast so it all lined up and she was perfectly in sync with the soundtrack but then when you play it back, she’s very graceful in slow motion. Her mouth matches perfectly so, I guess that’s one of the joys of working with Emily Blunt, she was able to pull that off. It was quite a challenge but we made that sequence work.”
Matt notes that having previously worked with Emily Blunt in Into the Woods helped him with Mary Poppins. Also knowing that Rob Marshall had worked on Broadway musical gave him the confidence that complicated sequences could be pulled off.
Mary Poppins fans know that some of the most iconic and memorable characters are the dancing penguins. One cannot think of Mary Poppins without recalling the iconic dance between Dick Van Dyke and these 2-D animated characters. Matthew expands on what it was like bringing back these old friends for Mary Poppins Returns. “The great thing about the dancing penguins is that they are hand drawn. It’s literally pencil and paper. We had some of the Disney animators come out of retirement just wanting to work on Mary Poppins. So it was great to see people making little paper flip books and that showing the animation of it. That was exciting but the must fun fact about the penguins is that I get to be one of their voices. They asked me to be the vice of one of the penguins so I got to record the dialogue. I am very proud of the penguins because I am one.”
Having worked for 2 years on Mary Popppins Returns, it is safe to say that Rob Marshall and his team, including Matt Johnson, did more than just pay homage to a beloved story and character. They breathed new life and a new look to a classic that makes the film worthy of carrying the Disney tradition of storytelling and wonder.
Mary Poppins Returns is currently available on demand, DVD, Blu-ray and 4k Ultra HD.
Photos courtesy of iMDB